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Restore a Vintage Handsaw for Everyday Use 

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build, hack, tweak, share, discover,- 

Restore a Vintage Handsaw for 

Everyday Use 

Written By: Josh Burroughs 


Rotary tool with cut-off wheel (1) 

card scraper (1) 

mill bastard file (1) 

paint scraper (1) 

saw files (1) 

saw jointer (1) 

saw set (1) 

saw vise (1) 


boiled linseed oil (1) 

shellac (2) 

Only mix what you need if using dry 
flakes; buy the smallest premixed can 
available otherwise. 


This project covers cleaning and restoring an old handsaw - worth about $5 at a yard sale - 
and turning it into a useful tool again. 

Handsaw Basics 

Handsaws come in two basic forms: handsaw and backsaw. Backsaws are (typically) short 

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Why Bother? 

saws with very thin blades and fine teeth with a rigid steel or brass back to stiffen their thin 
blades. They are mainly used when a very accurate cut is needed such as when cutting 
dovetail joints. 

Handsaws are like the one pictured in this guide, blades of spring steel with wooden handles 
attached. They come in a variety of sizes from about 20" to over 30". They are generally 
used for cutting stock (boards) to the proper width and length. Saws on the shorter end of 
the scale are often referred to as panel saws; they make excellent toolbox saws and are 
easier to use in tight spaces or when sawing at an odd angle. However being shorter they 
cut less wood per stroke than their longer cousins. 

Both backsaws and handsaws can have teeth that are filed for either rip cuts or cross cuts. 
Rip saws are used for cutting with the grain the wood (along the length of the board) and 
crosscut saws are for cutting across the grain of the board. Rip teeth are shaped like tiny 
chisels and scoop up the wood grain as they cut, producing sawdust made of tiny curly 
shavings. Crosscut teeth are shaped like little knives; they sever the wood fibers as they cut 
and produce a more powdery saw dust. Tooth size is measured in teeth or points per inch 
(TPI or PPI). The higher the TPI the smaller the teeth. Other things being equal, a saw with 
finer teeth will cut the same board slower than a saw with coarser teeth but will leave a 
better surface. 

A crosscut handsaw between 7-10 TPI is a very good all-around saw and does a good job on 
boards around one inch thick, leaving a decent surface but cutting quickly. For rip saws, 
between 5-7 TPI is a good all-around size for working with one-inch boards. 

Why Bother? 

Modern saws found at the big-box home centers usually have induction-hardened teeth that 
can't be sharpened - they are meant to be thrown away when dull. They also have thick 
heavy blades, blocky plastic handles and teeth that seem to be engineered to do a bad job at 
both rip- and cross-cuts. They are really designed and marketed towards users who won't 
bother to learn how to saw properly and can't be bothered to maintain their tools. 

Vintage saws from the turn of the last century, though, are literally the tools that built the 
U.S. These are tools that were made for skilled craftsmen to use and care for. They are fully 
user-serviceable and with the right set of files can be easily converted or tweaked to any 
use you have for them. With a little patience and practice to learn proper sawing technique, 
using a quality handsaw can actually be much faster than setting up a power saw for many 
types of cuts, not to mention safer, cleaner and quieter. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Vintage handsaws, and hand tools in general, made in the US from about 1880 to the 1950's 
are very common at online auction sites, garage sales and thrift stores. Aside from a few 
collectible brands and models most can be had for a fraction of what similar-quality new 
tools go for. With just a little TLC in the workshop these old tools can be brought back to life. 

Well-made vintage handsaws have many features not found on modern saws, except 
through a few specialty makers, that really improve the user experience. For starters they 
have much nicer handles made from fine hardwoods and shaped to be comfortable for 
working with all day. Many are also quite beautiful, especially compared to the blocky plastic 
handles on modern hardware-store saws. Vintage saws frequently have thinner, lighter 
blades which are often taper-ground. A taper-ground blade is thicker at the tooth line than it 
is at the top, reducing the drag on the blade as it moves through the wood making it easier to 
use for longer periods of time. 

Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Many old tools show many signs of use and abuse in their long histories, some more than 
others. Common damage to old saws includes missing saw nuts or medallions, chipped 
horns on the handle, cracked or split handles, broken teeth, kinked blades and of course 
rust. Most of these problems are fixable or can be worked around. 

Saws also show regular wear that's not the result of abuse. The most common is naturally a 
narrowing of the blade from sharpening over the years. Once a blade gets too narrow it loses 
too much rigidity and can easily bend or kink while in use. A full length (>26") handsaw that 
has become too narrow can be shortened to panel-saw length (-21") and gain many years of 
life, which is exactly what I show in this guide. 

What's Ahead 

This guide will cover the basics of finding a good vintage saw in the open market; how to 
clean and refinish the handle; how to clean and polish the blade; and an introduction to saw 
sharpening. Check the conclusion for information on where to find tools and equipment as 
well as links to detailed tutorials on saw sharpening. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 1 — Restore a Vintage Handsaw for Everyday Use 

• The first step is to find an old saw. 
Look for something with a nice 
comfortable-looking handle with no 
obvious breaks or missing parts. A 
good handle, like the one on this 
saw, won't look blocky or have any 
sharp arises on the grip. The more 
detailed and refined-looking the 

• A little surface rust is OK but look 
out for any pitting, especially near 
the tooth line. Anything worse off 
than the saw in this guide is 
probably best left as restaurant 
decoration, unless it's a family 
heirloom of course. 

• Look down along the tooth line to 
see how straight the blade is. A 
shallow curve in one direction is 
OK. Even a slight "S" curve in the 
blade is fine. What you want to 
avoid is a sharp bend or kink in the 
blade; these are virtually 
impossible to fix. 

• If you happen upon a very old saw 
with split nuts instead of the domed 
saw bolts like this saw has you 
may want to reconsider using it for 
this project. Check with the 
Disstonian Institute or Vintage 
Saws to make sure you don't have 
a valuable antique. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 2 

• Carefully unscrew the saw bolts 
holding the handle to the saw plate. 

• Be very careful when you do this. If 
the threads are frozen the bolt may 
just start spinning freely all the way 
through the handle. Once it starts 
doing this it's very difficult to 
remove without damage. 

• WD-40, Liquid Wrench or other 
penetrating lubricants can be used 
if necessary. 

Step 3 

• To begin cleaning the handle first start with a flexible card scraper and scrape off all the 
dirt and old finish you can reach with it. It's much faster than sanding 

• After scraping, sand away the remaining dirty finish with 220-grit paper and then lightly 
sand the whole handle with 320-grit paper. 

• After scraping and sanding look for any cracks or breaks. If you find any, carefully bend 
the cracked area so the crack opens up a little - careful not to break it completely - and try 
to wick as much thin CA glue in as possible. When it's taken as much as it can, lightly 
clamp it closed and let it sit for at least an hour. 

• Once the glue has dried scrape and sand any glue off the of the surface of the wood. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 4 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

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• Apply boiled linseed oil (BLO) to 
the handle. An old dried-out saw 
handle will soak up A LOT of oil so 
just keep wiping it on with a rag 
every few minutes. At first you'll 
actually be able to see the oil being 
sucked into the wood, especially 
the end grain. Once it stops 
soaking in fast enough to see it you 
can stop applying it. 

• Let the oil in the handle cure 
overnight before applying additional 

• I like a shellac finish on my tool 
handles. Here's how I apply it. After 
the BLO has cured overnight rub in 
another light coat before 
shellacking the handle; it will help 
lubricate the shellac. Load up a rag 
with a few squirts of shellac from a 
squeeze bottle and start wiping it 
on the handle, with the grain. Take 
a swipe across the top, then 
another overlapping swipe below it, 
etc... until you reach the bottom. 
Go back to the top and repeat until 
the rag starts to stick. Take care to 
shellac the end grain as you go. 
Reload the rag and repeat on the 
other side. 

• Once the sides and end grain are 
done, do basically the same thing 
to the top and bottom only wait a 
few seconds between swipes to 
give the alcohol a chance to flash 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 



• Warning: Shellac uses 
denatured alcohol as a 
solvent which is highly flammable. 
Take all due care when handling it. 

• Warning: Rags soaked in 
BLO should be hung up or 
laid flat on a non-flammable 
surface to dry. BLO-soaked rags 
can spontaneously combust if left 
wadded up in a confined space due 
to the heat generated by the curing 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 5 

• If your saw is less than about 1 1/2" wide at the toe you may want to consider trimming it 
back a few inches. Likewise if there is kink near the end or just heavy corrosion at the toe 5 
cutting it off can be your best bet. 

• For this saw I trimmed it down to 21" at the tooth line because I needed a solid fast cutting 
panel saw in my collection. 

• If you need to cut down the saw for any reason a rotary tool with a cut off wheel is 
probably the best way to go. A metal-cutting bandsaw or jigsaw will work well too, but 
whatever you do don't try to use shears of any kind; they will warp the blade near the cut 
and make the saw useless. 

• After cutting round off the sharp corner with a file and generally clean up the cut area so 
it's smooth and nice-looking. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 6 

• Time to work on the blade. Line your bench with newspapers or plastic before starting; this 
is messy. 

• The shape your saw is in when you start really determines how aggressive you have to be 
with the blade cleaning. The one in this guide was at the limit of what can be saved. 
Anything worse than this is probably beyond saving 

• First thing to do is check for an etch. A saw etch is a decorative maker's mark acid-etched 
into the blade. Usually it shows the company logo, the model number and some claims 
about the saw. They don't affect how the saw functions but they do look cool and are worth 

• The etch is always found on the left side of the blade in the middle. Check this area by 
lightly sanding with #320 sandpaper and looking carefully at the metal in a low raking light 
after you wipe it clean. If any text or images jump out you've found the etch. Continue to 
carefully sand the area until you define the borders of the etch and then stop for now. 

• According to the etch this is a Hibbard, Spencer and Bartlett Company branded saw. HSB 
was a pretty well-known Chicago area hardware company in the early part of the 20th 
century. Much like Sears Craftsman, their house-branded tools were made by other big- 
name manufacturers. This saw was probably made by Disston for HSB. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 7 

• Start by lubing up the blade with either mineral spirits, WD-40 or, if ventilation is an issue, 
Windex (yes, really). 

• The first weapon is a razor scraper to try and knock as much of flaking rust off as 
possible. Go nuts with this; just be careful not to scratch the blade and mind the etch. 

• When sanding use a piece of scrap wood as a make-shift sanding block. This will help you 
sand evenly along the blade. For this saw I had to actually start with #80 sand paper which 
is ridiculous. Normally after scraping #180 is the coarsest paper you'll use. Use firm but 
gentle pressure, keep the blade lubricated and wipe it clean with shop rags frequently to 
check for progress. The middle picture is how the blade should look when you're done with 
the #180 grit. 

• You can start sanding the etch area, with the sanding block, once you start with the #180 
grit paper, just be careful and never sand just the etch. Always sand across the entire 

• The last two pictures show how the whole blade and the etch should look when done with 
the #180 paper. 

• Keep sanding at higher grits up to #320ish. You can use the #320 to clean stubborn spots 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 8 

• Most saws have the teeth per inch (TPI) stamped near the heel (back) of the blade. This 
saw is 8 TPI, a very common tooth size. 

• Now it's time to shape and sharpen the teeth. 

• As the photo shows this saw suffers from "calves and cows" or alternating big teeth and 
little teeth. This wasn't done on purpose; it's just the result of sloppy sharpening over the 

• The teeth alternate between dirty and clean because of the saw's "set." Handsaws 
have their teeth bent slightly off center, in an alternating pattern. This is done on 
purpose and it allows the saw to cut a kerf slightly wider than the blade itself, which keeps 
the saw from binding. 

• I'm not going to cover in detail how to shape and sharpen saw teeth in this guide. 
See the resources section in the end for links to online guides and books that cover 
the topic better than I can. 


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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 9 

• First step is to "joint" the teeth. Jointing means to make all the teeth square to the saw 
plate and even with each other. It's similar to jointing a board on a jointer. 

• Use a mill bastard file in a saw jointer. Drag the file over the entire blade repeatedly with 
firm, even pressure until every single tooth has a flat top. Remember, files only cut in one 

• Stop when all of the teeth have a nice flat top. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 10 


• Now shape the teeth with an appropriately sized triangular saw file. 

• File in one direction only and stop filing when either of the teeth the file is touching loses 
its flat top. 

• Repeat jointing and shaping until the teeth are uniformly shaped and spaced across the 

• After shaping use your saw set to set the teeth - follow the manufacturers instruction for 
using the saw set. Set every other tooth in the saw going one way, flip the saw in the vise 
and set the other teeth. 

• After setting the saw lightly joint the teeth again and begin sharpening. Sharpen the teeth 
whose backs face away from you first then flip the saw in the vise and do the others. 
When the flat tip is gone the tooth is sharp. You can darken the back of each tooth with a 
sharpie before you begin to help you keep your place. 

• One or two short teeth or even a missing one isn't a big deal. Future sharpenings 
will restore them. Just make sure 90% or more of the teeth are even. 

• See the links at the end of this guide for all the details on how to sharpen the teeth. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 11 

• This is how properly shaped and 
sharpened cross-cut teeth look. 

Step 12 

• Before putting the saw back together rub down the blade with some steel wool and paste 
wax. You can buff out the wax everywhere on the blade except where it fits into the handle. 
Leaving the wax on will help prevent rust. 

• Once the shellac on the handle has dried for a few hours rub it out with paste wax and 
steel wool also and then buff it out with a clean rag to a nice satin shine. The handle will 
feel silky smooth to the touch. 

• Insert the blade into the handle, line up the holes and put the saw bolts back in. Cinch 
them up nice and tight by hand so the blade doesn't wobble in the handle at all. 

• Pictures of the finished saw including a reunion with the section I trimmed off. 

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Common Problems & Wear and Tear 

Step 13 

• Refinished handle. Notice the graceful curves and the fact that there are no sharp corners 
anywhere on the grip. These are signs of a good-quality saw handle that can be used all 
day in comfort. 

• One of the saw nuts was missing from this handle. In a pinch a brass "Chicago bolt" works 
well as a replacement, though it doesn't look quite right. 

• A saw handle like this works best with a three-fingered grip wrapped around the 
handle with the index finger pointing out straight ahead in the direction of your cut. 

Step 14 

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• Once you start fixing up old 
saws it's really hard to stop! 


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Saw Sharpening 

Saw Sharpening 

There's a lot more to sharpening and maintaining a handsaw than I could put into this guide, so 
to help with those tasks I've compiled some additional resources for your convenience. 

There are many good tutorials on the internet that explain saw sharpening in great detail. Here 
are a couple of my favorites: 

Full saw sharpening tutorial from Pete Taran of 

Bom Smalser's take on saw sharpening . 

I would suggest reading both sharpening guides starting with Pete's very thorough guide and 
then Bob's more down-to-earth take on the topic; they are complementary works I MO. In 
practice it's a lot easier to do a decent job of sharpening a saw than it seems and even an 
imperfectly sharpened saw will cut much better than a dull one. 

Keeping the Cutting Edge by Harold Payson is probably the best book written on the subject of 
saw filing and includes information on sharpening circular saw blades as well. 

Saw Vises 

You need something to hold the saw in while you sharpen it to hold it steady and to dampen 
vibrations from the files. Shop-made wooden vises and commercial metal ones both work 
equally well. 

Wooden Saw Vises 

Instructions for building a saw vise at the Cornish Workshop 
More plans for a shop-made saw vise from the Norse Woodsmith 
Very simple saw vise by Daryl Weir 
Very well documented saw vise plans by Dom Greco 

Metal Saw Vises 

Gramercy Tools steel saw vise from Tools for Working Wood. The only newly made saw vise 
currently on the market that I'm aware of. 

If you prefer vintage iron, eBay's collectible tools category usually has several saw vises pop up 
every week. 

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Final Thoughts 

If buying vintage, try to get the widest jaws you can find. Heavy is good and be wary of shipping 
costs. Saw vises are pretty simple, rugged cast-iron tools and it's not hard to find one in working 
order. If you end up with one that doesn't seem to grip the saw blade firmly or evenly just glue a 
thin strip of leather or rubber tubing to one of the jaws. A lot of the old vises have a groove milled 
in one of the jaws for this purpose. 

Final Thoughts 

This may seem like a lot of work and a lot of new tools to buy just to fix up one trashed old saw 
when you can just go down to the home center and buy one for $20-30. But keep in mind that 
you can't sharpen that hardware-store saw; its impulse-hardened teeth are too hard to file. Once 
it's dull, it's trash in the landfill. If you're going to pursue even a modest amount of woodworking 
you're eventually going to acquire more saws as your skills advance and you take on more 
complex projects. You will probably want a pair of these panel saws, one rip and one crosscut, 
right away and a few backsaws for making woodworking joints like dovetails or mortise-and- 
tenons. With the tools and skills covered in this guide you can put together a kit of saws that will 
last a lifetime and always be sharp and ready when you need them. 

This document was last generated on 201 2-11 -01 01 :21 :1 PM. 

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